Commentary Magazine

CBW: Chemical and Biological Warfare, edited by Steven Rose Chemical and Biological Warfare, by Seymour Hersh The Silent Weapons

Deadly Weapons

CBW: Chemical and Biological Warfare.
by Steven Rose.
Beacon Press. 209 pp. $7.50.

Chemical and Biological Warfare.
by Seymour Hersh.
Bobbs-Merrill. 354 pp. $7.50.

The Silent Weapons.
by Robin Clarke.
David McKay. 270 pp. $4.95.

Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints.
by Frederic J. Brown.
Princeton University Press. 355 pp. $9.00.

The United States, its enemies, and its allies are arming themselves with poison gases and disease germs for use in warfare. Chemical warfare agents—crop poisons, nerve gases, other poisonous gases, and incapacitating gases—are in extensive development and production in the United States, and biological weapons preparations are going forward. These are the clear, repugnant facts discussed in these books.

Chemical warfare agents are being used, for the first time since World War I, in Vietnam. Crop-destruction with arsenic-based herbicides, defoliation, destruction of much of the mangrove forests of South Vietnam, repeated spraying of vast areas with the persistent herbicide picloram, and experimentation with toxic gases, are providing much operational experience in the arts of chemical warfare. Nerve gases are in standard and steady production in this country, and our stockpile of nerve-gas bombs, missiles, and artillery shells can only be compared with our stockpile of nuclear weapons for sheer useless destructiveness. Chemical weapons are dispersed throughout the world with United States forces, and it is not at all clear under what circumstances we are prepared to use them.

The Russians are not behind us in this field, as the Israeli army revealed when it found unused nerve-gas artillery, Russian made, in Sinai. In Yemen, the Egyptians have used poison-gas bombs.

Our own nerve-gas weapons are manufactured at a plant in Newport, Indiana, by the Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation of New York City. The vast surplus of nerve gas had been stored at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal until recently, when a group of scientists in nearby Denver pointed out that the gas was directly beneath a main approach of the Denver airport. The bulk of the arsenal has now been moved on flatbed railroad cars to Utah, where chemical warfare experiments are carried on over large areas of the state.

At the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, where new chemical agents are tested, a recent experiment involved spraying nerve gas from a jet aircraft at low altitude. Through a series of gross misjudgments, and the mechanical failure of the spray cut-off mechanism, the gas drifted several miles from the test area, and killed thousands of sheep. A recent article in Environment magazine points out it was only good luck which spared the town of Dugway in this incident.


The most recent and most scholarly review of these activities is CBW: Chemical and Biological Warfare, the record of a conference held in London, February 22 and 23, 1968. The proceedings have been ably edited by Steven Rose, who has added material and made revisions to take account of later developments.

Although much of the material has been published before, there is also much that is new. The reader will be surprised to find that the United States is making use of the Canadian Suffield Proving Grounds, where a thousand-square-mile tract is used “for studying the spread of [disease] organisms,” as he will be to learn the extent of United States use of toxic gases in Vietnam. The book deals with the legal and moral aspects of research as well as with the nature, development, and use of the weapons themselves; and, though the exposition is sometimes inadequate, the references and bibliography are copious. This volume is likely to serve, as apparently it was intended, as the handbook for academic opposition to CBW.


Seymour Hersh's Chemical and Biological Warfare is intended for a broader audience. It is a compelling description of the grossly misconceived programs which have elicited passionate opposition from independent scientists. Hersh provides some information on the state of our biological warfare development, a more secret enterprise, and his most disturbing reportage concerns the testing of biological weapons.

Most of America's germ warfare research is conducted at Fort Detrick, near Frederick, Maryland. It would be difficult to list in the short space of a review all the disturbing features of this program. Hersh effectively demolishes the persistent claim that the research is defensive in nature, pointing to the heavy preponderance of work on delivery mechanisms. A biological warfare missile warhead, he reports, has been operational since 1964. There is extensive experimentation with human subjects at Detrick, and diseases like pneumonic plague and anthrax escape from the base with disturbing regularity. Local and federal health agencies seem to have assisted Fort Detrick in keeping these incidents from public attention.

The overwhelming impression one carries away from Hersh's book, a fine piece of writing and investigative reporting from start to finish, is of the incompetence with which chemical and biological warfare agents are handled. Hersh quotes a letter from a chemist who worked at Dugway Proving Grounds, where chemical and perhaps biological agents are field-tested:

The civilians, whether Ph.D.'s or not, were a strange breed of people. . . . They all had credentials, degrees, etc., but from the time they arrived at Dugway they just turned off. It was another world, ostensibly a scientific testing operation but in reality a home for derelicts of all kinds: people who could not cope with . . . a real life situation. . . .

I cannot speak for the veracity of other tests conducted at Dugway, but there were certainly a number of cooked-up results submitted by our group. . . . Very often we “dry-labbed” it [gave them the result they wanted] or else the section heads would.

It took no idiot to figure out that the more tests there were the more people would be needed and this was exactly the way most of our superiors could improve their position.


Robin Clarke's The Silent Weapons is a review of the available published material regarding CBW. Clarke, editor of the British Science Journal, has attempted simply to make this material accessible to the lay reader, and has succeeded, though the book is marred by a lack of documentation. “The public knows far more about the mechanisms of the hydrogen bomb, the extent of the nation's nuclear stockpiles, and the methods of delivering nuclear warheads than . . . about the technology of chemical warfare,” Clarke quite rightly points out. He dispels some of the secrecy which surrounds both chemical and biological weapons, but he never really analyzes the reasons for their existence.

It is hard to evade the conclusion that to some extent CBW secrecy protects useless and dangerous programs and their sponsors from outside criticism. By carefully reviewing the literature of biological warfare, Clarke presents what is probably the consensus among knowledgeable scientists: that biological warfare currently should hold no practical interest for the United States. Furthermore, experimentation with biological agents is extremely hazardous, particularly when it involves field-testing of infectious agents. The prospect of a repeat of the Dugway nerve-gas fiasco, this time with plague or anthrax germs, is not appealing. Surprisingly, Clarke seems to resist the implication in his evidence that biological warfare research is a vastly dangerous boondoggle, protected by secrecy and the aura of modern science. He presents the inherent problems in the way those engaged in the programs view them—as difficulties to be overcome by research. But the real problems are in the very nature of the beast.

To begin with, highly infectious diseases, transmissible from man to man, are extremely undesirable weapons because of the impossibility of foreseeing or controlling the extent of their spread once they have been released. A worldwide pandemic of some newly infectious plague might very well follow the use of such an agent in warfare. Even if it were possible to innoculate one's own civilian population in advance, there would still be very great risks. As we are constantly being reminded by the new varieties of flu which appear each year, infectious diseases have a way of mutating to new forms against which our old vaccines are useless. Finally, and perhaps equally as important from the standpoint of military effectiveness, are the problems of delayed effects and the inevitable unpredictability of agents which depend for their effect on being spread from man to man.

From the military's point of view, then, the biological weapons of choice would seem to be diseases which, though highly virulent, and to which there is little natural immunity among human populations, are yet not transmitted from person to person. In addition, an effective treatment must be available to protect oneself against retaliations and miscarriages of one's own weapons.

Such a disease agent (tularemia is one of the few known to fit these specifications) would be little different from any number of highly effective poisons already in our chemical warfare arsenal. Acting only after inhalation or ingestion, it would affect only those with whom it came into direct contact. Biological agents, in fact, are quickly merging into chemical agents, and the most potent BW weapon now known is in reality a chemical, botulinum toxin. This is one of the most toxic materials known, and is secreted by the germ Clostridium botulinum—hence its classification as a biological agent. A fraction of a millionth of a gram of this material can be lethal. (There are other chemical agents, among them the newer nerve gases developed by the British, such as vx, which may approach this enormous toxicity.)

Yet it is hard to see what advantage the biological agents, if militarily suitable ones could be developed, would have over chemicals. In terms of weight of material required to produce a single casualty, it is unlikely that bacterial agents will ever be as efficient as chemical weapons, since just a few bacteria may weigh as much as a lethal dose of vx. Both bacteria and viruses are easily destroyed by even brief exposure to air and sunlight, and though viruses might have some weight advantage, the difficulties of delivering them would probably offset this nominal advantage.


Despite these inherent difficulties, research in biological warfare continues on a large scale. The best that could be expected from such research would be a new weapon system substantially similar to chemical weapons already in our arsenal. The cost of such research is the constant risk of inadvertent release of infectious diseases during field-testing or laboratory experimentation. The greatest danger in allowing it to continue is the risk that an infectious, easily transmissible disease agent will be developed, stockpiled, and eventually used, through no better reason than bureaucratic inertia, and that the result will be a massive epidemic out of all control.

Clarke is as dedicated an opponent of chemical and biological weapons as one can find, and he presents much of the evidence needed to construct a reasonable argument against their development, but his own appeal to scientists to cease assisting in the development of such weapons is somewhat less than persuasive. I do not know why he thinks that scientists are more likely to respond to appeals of a humanitarian sort than are, say, generals. Indeed, as Clarke points out earlier in his book, scientists historically have been the principal advocates of chemical and biological warfare agents (on the presumably humanitarian grounds that they merely maim, wound, or incapacitate their victims) whereas generals have been the chief obstacles to their employment.


Frederic J. Brown documents this last point in detail and with great authority in Chemical Warfare: A Study in Restraints. According to the book jacket, Major Brown is assistant professor of International Relations at West Point. In his introduction he notes that he has had “direct access to all United States toxic-agent policy documents,” with the exceptions of Joint Chiefs of Staff minutes and White House documents. He has apparently been hampered by secrecy much less than the other three authors reviewed here, and his book therefore has a special interest.

It is a scholarly work, written in the cool tone that now seems required for academic discussions of warfare. With persuasive thoroughness, Brown explores the history of chemical weapons since World War I. His aim is to answer the question: “Why did the United States not use chemical weapons in the Second World War?” He focuses on the end of the war with Japan, when there were seemingly few restraints on the means we were willing to employ—when fire-bombing and nuclear weapons were used, and when there was no apparent threat of retaliation.

The interesting and well-documented conclusion is that the restraints on the use of chemical weapons in World War II operated in the military, not in the political sphere: it was the generals and not the politicians who opposed their use. In the author's words: “In World War II, the lesson was clear; the loci of decision-making with respect to gas warfare lay within the professional military establishments themselves. Military lack of interest kept the issue of initiation from reaching civilian elite groups.”


Why was the military uninterested in chemical agents? “Neither public opinion nor legal restriction was directly effective; but, on the other hand, lack of assimilation and fear of retaliation proved to be significant restraints.” “Lack of assimilation” is Brown's phrase for two related phenomena: first, the reluctance of the professional military establishment to absorb innovation, particularly the drastic innovations which the experience of World War I had shown would be required for defensive as well as offensive chemical warfare; and second, the pervasive feeling that chemical agents were simply not honorable or acceptable means of warfare.

Brown investigates the implications of this analysis for our modern theories, if that is the word, of nuclear deterrence. Chemical weapons, like nuclear weapons, were used briefly and then subjected to elaborate restraints, internally and internationally. Would these restraints be effective in the case of nuclear weapons? Is our national reliance on nuclear deterrence justified? The author concludes: “The record of the United States chemical warfare policy provides a little solace to anyone concerned with the evolution of deterrence, but it is precious little.” He points out that the professional military has accepted nuclear weapons to a far greater degree than they ever accepted chemical weapons, at least when they think in terms of massive warfare between the USSR or China and the U.S.

This greater acceptance is probably a reflection of general public opinion, for although Brown discounts public opinion and political pressure as a direct restraint on the use of chemical weapons, he leads one to the conclusion that as an indirect force the general climate of opinion has in fact been decisive. The distaste for chemical warfare felt by the military was a reflection, in large part, of prevailing public sentiment, just as the current dependence of some of our armed forces on nuclear missiles seems to be simply a part of a national acceptance of the supposed necessity of these weapons. (There are some indications that even in this regard public feeling has changed or is changing. The test-ban treaty, the pressure for a nonproliferation treaty, and the first faint glimmerings of hope for arms-limitation agreements with the Soviet Union are encouraging.)

Chemical weapons of mass destruction are morally repellent; piled upon the equally redundant nuclear arms system upon which we now base our strategies they add nothing to our national security. A biological warfare system, if it could be developed, would simply add a third horror to our lives, and would bring with it a whole new category of global risks.

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